To Televise or Not to Televise
Estelle Ellis, Jeremy Gordin
Proceedings in the trial of Schabir Shaik are scheduled to start this afternoon at 2.15 - let's hope the prosecution makes it.
That is when Judge Hillary Squires will rule on whether television cameras will be permitted in court.
Yesterday the prosecuting team might have had the world watching to see what they were doing, but then they met the great equaliser - the lift in a government building.
"We missed the news at 7," a surprisingly calm leader of the prosecution, advocate Billy Downer SC, said. "Were we on?" (They were in fact the lead story) "We have been stuck here for 30 minutes."
He explained that he and his two colleagues Anton Steynberg and Santhos Manilall were waiting for the lift technicians to free them.
Earlier yesterday, all eyes were on the Durban High Court where Shaik's corruption and fraud trial was due to start. But legal argument for and against the application for television coverage took up most of yesterday's court time.
Advocate Gilbert Marcus SC, for e.tv, argued that the law says a person must be tried in open court. This, Marcus said, must be interpreted to mean that cameras ought to be allowed.
But advocate Guido Penzhorn, SC, said the state was concerned about the possible detrimental effect that cameras would have on witnesses. He said the State already had to deal with witnesses who were reluctant to give evidence. He quoted from an affidavit by Downer in which Downer said that his priority was to ensure that Shaik got a fair trial.
Advocate Nirmal Singh SC, who opposed the application on behalf of Shaik and his companies, said in addition they were worried about the effect cameras would have on the accused. He quoted from a German judgment indicating that the broadcast of proceedings might have a negative effect on an accused person's ability to concentrate. He was also concerned about how cameras would influence witnesses' ability to make concessions under cross-examination.
The advocates also had a major dispute about whether this case, because of its high profile, should be treated differently to others.
Marcus said the interest in the case was one of the main reasons why the case should be televised, but Singh argued that it should not matter what the profile of the case was. He said he believed public interest should be interpreted that "justice must be seen to be done".
Penzhorn further argued that television was such an invasive medium that it was open to abuse. He used the example of the repeat broadcast of the image of former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje crying. "The television can show a witness breaking down, but the same witness might recover later".
Marcus answered that the abuse of television images could, if necessary, be disciplined by the court, like any other reporting.
"But should the court now become some sort of editorial committee?" Judge Squires asked.
Marcus answered that the so-called dangers of the televising of trials were overstated.
Tomorrow Shaik is expected to plead to the charges.
With acknowledgements to Estelle Ellis, Jeremy Gordin and the Daily News.